So, this little thing called a presidential election is happening right now in Congo. No big deal. It might be the country’s second democratic election in the last 40 years… it might be happening in a country that is still considered mired in a civil war… and it might be happening on a continent known for less-than-civil civics, short on smooth-running elections overall… but hey, hakuna matata.
Sarcasm aside, I’m kind of serious about the no big deal part. In our little bubble of a base camp, things are running smoothly and you would hardly notice an election was even taking place. I could observe only a few little things from my humble vantage point that said otherwise.
- For about 2 weeks prior to Election Monday (Nov 28), there was a van going slowly up and down the national highway making announcements through a megaphone. I suppose they were letting people know when and where to vote… how else to do it in a place where not every home owns 3.5 television sets?
- Two days before election day, huge military helicopters made several trips back & forth to Lubumbashi to drop off ballots. Apparently these ballots are thick 60-page booklets, with 11 presidential candidates and a mere 18,000 running for 500 seats in Parliament! The helicopter was so loud and so close we thought they were going to land in our back yard. We rushed outside, as did our neighbors, and watched them land over the trees somewhere in Fungurume. We heard later that when they dropped off the ballots, nobody was there to guard them at first. So people rushed the bags, maybe thinking they were food or money or supplies, and a bit of a clash ensued with 10 people ending up in jail.
- The national airport in Lubumbashi shut down on election day. Shut down! No flights allowed – and why? Is the airport short on staff? (I guess with 60-page ballots, voting would take awhile.) Are they predicting trouble? Interference from foreign legions? Anyway, it’s a little unsettling. We’re stuck here.
- When the travel window opened a few days ago, some international airlines cancelled their flights anyway. South African, most notably. Ethiopian cancelled their flights today, even though reportedly nothing is going on. We’re scheduled to fly with them on Friday… thankfully with refundable tickets.
- The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa has been sending SMS messages (turned off nationwide for the rest of us civilians) and emails daily to those are registered with them. (Incidentally, funny story… Seb tried to register with the Canadian Embassy but couldn’t because the corporate network blocked the site!) The messages are entirely Kinshasa-based, which is quite a long ways from here. We’ve heard about the daily riots there and the house-arrest lockdowns for Embassy staff. This morning I got a rather unnerving email saying that in the event of an emergency, we really couldn’t necessarily count on them to come to our rescue.
- Months ago we heard that the company might require us spouses to evacuate during the election period. This turned into a casual request to kindly take our annual vacation around November-December. Nothing ever officially became of it, though there were still whispers that it would be a good idea. About a week beforehand, a few wives chose to leave and Seb got a little panicked, asking me to consider the same thing. But right around the same time, two new spouses arrived. If it’s ok to come in during this time, then it’s ok to stay, I figured. Besides, if anything interesting happens, I want to be here to witness it!
In spite of these indicators, we are safe and sound and surprisingly comfortable here in Fungurume. Knock on wood. I don’t mean to belittle what’s happening elsewhere in the country… there have been incidents of arson, violent protests, 13 people killed as of this morning. But you can read or watch all of this on the news, and don’t need my help with sensationalistic reporting. My job, I think, is to report from an expat wife’s perhaps-naïve-but-hopefully-refreshingly-calm perspective! (Insert another knock on wood here.)